It’s a sleepy Wednesday morning at Pete’s Fruits & Vegetables, but shoppers are already trickling in to the market to pick through produce, consider cartons of eggs or choose a couple of steaks for dinner. There’s a woman who’s concerned that the feta isn’t quite the same as it was the last time she bought it, a neighbor placing her order for a whole Easter lamb. While they’re all looking for different things, they invariably stop to chat with owner Pete Moutzouris and his son Ted, who greet nearly every customer by name.
Every customer, that is, except me, since I’m a new face in this Hilltop institution. Spying an opportunity, Pete starts working on me immediately, offering me coffee and looking genuinely surprised when I turn down the honey that he thinks I should add to it. When we sit down to chat later, he slips me a perfect nectarine and a just-right banana, while Ted cuts samples of feta to illustrate the difference between Greek- and Bulgarian-made cheese. And I begin plotting a dinner party, to be supplied completely by finds in this market.
All this is why, nearly forty years into its tenure at the corner of Cedar Avenue and Holly Street, and long after chain grocery stores supplanted neighborhood markets across the city, Pete’s continues to be a mainstay for regulars, while also attracting new customers who soon become regulars. “Put the honey, you get the bees,” Pete says, with a wink. “They come back.”
Pete didn’t set out to become a grocer. He came to the United States from southern Greece’s Peloponnese region in 1971 (or 1972; he’s a little fuzzy on the dates — “but it’s just a year, does it matter?”) with no money, no job and no English. “I started as a tailor and made $25 a week,” he recalls. “After a month, I gave up.” A cousin who owned a restaurant and bar on East Colfax introduced Pete to a carpet-layer, who gave him a job. He’d work all day, then at night take the bus downtown to attend school to learn English.
Pete worked his way up, eventually commanding two crews in booming southeast Denver. But after a few years, he wanted to do something a little less physically taxing. He regularly passed what was then a small fruit and vegetable market called Bob’s, and one day he noticed that Bob was moving to Leetsdale Drive. So he called the building’s owner and took over the lease. “Mr. Bob said, ‘I give him six months to be in business,’” Pete remembers. “I’ve been here for 39 years. I came up from zero.”
From the beginning, what was quickly rebranded Pete’s focused on local, high-quality fresh produce — an affinity Pete had picked up while living with a farmer in Greece. Ted remembers daily trips out to Brighton with his brother John, when his father would pick up lettuce and zucchini and whatever else was in season.
As its customer base grew, so did Pete’s: The market slowly usurped its neighbors’ leases and added butchery and prepared foods, made from whatever ingredients needed to be moved. Many of those dishes were Greek — moussaka, spanakopita, Greek pastries — and they were supplemented by imports from the Mediterranean: olives and olive oil from Kalamata, near where Pete grew up, and a half-dozen types of feta cheese from as many countries. That drew members of Denver’s large Greek community, who continue to plan their holy-week feasts by what they can get at the market.
But Pete’s had another group of loyal customers, many of them based in Hilltop: the Jewish community. “When Passover came, everything revolved around it: fresh horseradish, eggs, everything our neighbors needed to stock up,” says Ted. Serving orthodox Jewish neighbors inspired the family to open a kosher pizzeria, which initially seemed an odd choice. Ted remembers that “they’d come in and say, ‘How does a Greek make Italian food and sell it to Jewish people?’”
In the course of running his business, Pete discovered an interest in flowers, now his favorite part of the job. “He started off with two little carts, geraniums and Italian basil, and he threw them away every year,” remembers Ted. “One year he bought a little more, and then he bought a little tent outside, and he had a dozen carts or so, and it grew into what it is now,” a sizable operation that supplies plants to Cherry Creek North landlords, the City of Denver and neighborhood gardeners.
Pete’s customers discovered they liked to haggle with Pete over his blooms, since the owner takes an old-world bargaining approach to selling those particular goods. “It’s this big thing everyone likes,” says Ted. “There are gardeners who come in every year and want to deal with Pete. When he’s not here they say, ‘I’ll come back. I’ve been thinking about this deal all year.’”
Eventually, John and Ted officially joined the family business. “One month turned into six, and six months turned into six years,” says Ted. “I liked it. It was fun.” While Ted settled into running the original market with his father, John ran the spinoffs: He opened the Mythos food truck in the early days of the food-truck boom and continues to vend pita souvlaki at Civic Center Eats every summer, and he ran the pizzeria until a nearby competitor bought that business.
In 2014, John spearheaded the purchase of Spinelli’s Market, extending the family business into the Park Hill neighborhood. “Jerry Spinelli was selling the business for a year or two,” says Ted. “My brother came up to me and said, ‘Let’s go talk to Jerry, let’s go sit down.’ We sat down a couple times. There were a few people who were interested, but they wanted to change it. Jerry and Mary Ellen had been there for 22 years when we bought it. We did the walk-through and told him it reminded us so much of our dad’s place. Jerry said, ‘Shit, it should — I stole every idea from him.’”
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From both locations, the Moutzouris family watches the produce business evolve. Young, affluent families are buying up much of the real estate in Hilltop, while the traditional customer base is moving out to Lowry — beyond the reach of the market. And just as chains shuttered many markets like Pete’s over the years, today online shopping for specialty goods is squeezing retailers. “For a grocery store, you need to be here all the time.
It’s not like a clothing store,” says Ted. “If you’re not open, the shopper will just go to the next guy. If you need it now, you want to get it now. Do that a couple of times, and you’ll never see that customer again. We try to add as much convenience as possible.” And regulars, he notes, aren’t shy about tapping on the window after closing time. They know they’ll be let in.
To add another draw, the family just opened a liquor store next to the Hilltop market. In keeping with Pete’s Fruits & Vegetables, it’s particularly robust in Greek wines and spirits as well as locally made beer and booze.
But with rising housing costs, it’s getting harder and harder to find staff, who’ve traditionally lived within walking distance of the shops. That’s the largest barrier to further expansion, says Ted: “Our biggest hurdle now is just finding the right employees.” But at least there’s no shortage of family members who could be interested in the business: John married the daughter of the owners of La Fogata, a popular Mexican restaurant, and they have three daughters. “They’re small now, though, so we’ll see when they grow up,” says Ted.
And in the meantime, there’s always Pete. “The key to the whole thing is Pete,” says his son. “He’s still here seven days a week. You need five people to replace what he does. It’s proof that if you love what you do, you’ll be successful. For him, it’s not work: He comes in, sees customers, sees his friends who are the wholesalers, sees me and my brother. This is not work, it’s just life.”
“The neighborhood loves us, and we love the neighborhood,” concludes Pete. “It’s nice to be here for so many years.”
Pete's Fruits & Vegetables opens at 7 a.m. It's located at 5606 East Cedar Avenue in Denver; call 303-393-6247 for more information.